In praise of fake realism

I finally caught Matteo Garrone’s highly praised mob film Gomorra and the first thing I thought afterward was that it makes me appreciate the earlier hallmarks in the tradition of Italian realism, films like Visconti’s La Terra Trema and of course De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. Those older films are fueled by some romantic Marxist combination of outrage and sympathy and condescension. There’s a lot of feeling in them, not just on the screen but – you can sense – behind the camera. It’s possible to argue that Gomorra is a realist film – indeed, if you’re being literal, you might argue that it is a more realist(ic) film – but, stylistically, the only emotion that seems to infuse it is a sort of documentary earnestness. It’s dry as dust. It has a broad scope but no real viewpoint. It lacks the great sentimentalism of the great fake realism.

It might sound like what I’m describing is a virtue, but I don’t think it is. I don’t think it’s a vice for a movie of this sort to deign to do a little convincing, a little aesthetic seduction. Garrone seems so sure of the exposé value of his material he hasn’t bothered to make much of a story from it. When, at the end, a series of graphic screens flash past describing the destruction inflicted by organized crime in Italy, it feels both redundant and weirdly revelatory. It’s redundant because you’ve just seen all that bad stuff in the movie, so, like, duh. And it’s revelatory because it finally offers a glimmer of the viewpoint it’s so hard to discern in the movie itself. Instead of the passionate old Marxism, though, it hints at a sort of Good European Citizenship. (There was something about a paragraph on environmental harm from illegal waste dumping appearing in great black-and-white solemnity at the end of a violent mob film that made me want to laugh.)

Edelstein contrasted Gomorra unfavorably to The Wire, and the contrast speaks to my point. David Simon is our greatest contemporary example of the impassioned realist, or, if you will, the outraged pseudo-realist. The Wire is anchored in all sorts of grim real-life facts, but it is carried along, given life and style and wit through small bits of exaggeration, by Simon’s extremely fertile bitterness. Even if we should already know that things are that bad in Simon’s Baltimore, he still has some ideas about why, about who the true shitheads are, that he really thinks you need to hear.